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Didactics 20 : School Failure

A : Recap

Last time we looked at the questions of whether school is a meritocratic institution, and whether school qualifications do actually have an effect upon later careers. We saw that the school tends to reproduce the social divisions which already exist - it tends to valorise those characteristics which distinguish middle class people from working class people, and it tends to measure qualities which the child already does or does not possess when she arrives in the school. 

B : School processes

The lessons drawn from macro-sociology, which deal with the structural processes and large masses of the population, often seem to be discouraging for the individual teacher - nothing we may do will make much difference. However, if we look closely at what actually does happen in the classroom, we will see that individual interactions between teachers and pupils, between pupils and other pupils, and between teachers and other teachers can be decisive. We will see that the efficient teacher needs to be fully aware of her own motivations, and of the often unconscious processes that occur in her classroom. Making a difference may involve hard work, but it is possible - some teachers are able to offer opportunities to children who would not otherwise have them, even if, unfortunately, many teachers tend, through their behaviour both in the classroom and in the committee room, to simply reinforce already existing divisions.

1. Streams, tracks and sets

One of the functions of school, as we have seen, is to differentiate between the different students, to sort them into categories. These categories are never, or can never long remain, value-free. When they are based upon a generalized concept of ability, the children are sorted into the able, the average and the unable. It is evident that the former is more distinguished than the latter. 
When, within the upper classes of a lycée, pupils are divided into those who are scientific or mathematic in bent, those who are literary, and those who are practical, it is understood by all participants that the young people are being assigned to different levels of a hierarchy. 

This process has effects, both immediate, and in the long term, on the behaviour and on the attitudes of the pupils. Let us look closely at one case study. In 1970, Colin Lacey published a book called Hightown Grammar, based upon his observations while a teacher in an English Grammar School. At that time, grammar schools were selective secondary schools. Entry was determined by an exam, passed at the age of ten or eleven, and known as the 11+. Depending on the child's results, she would go on to Grammar school, which prepared for public exams - the GCEs - to the technical school, or to the Secondary Modern School. At Hightown, only the top 15 - 20% of pupils went to Grammar School. 

At Hightown, 118 pupils were selected from 35 junior schools, and over half the boys came from schools that sent six or less pupils. This selection process meant that the pupils arriving in the Grammar school, and assembled in the four first-form classes, were unlikely to have many friends in their class. In an answer to a questionnaire on friendships, 58 boys out of the 118 stated that they had no friend from the same junior school in their class. Lacey found that, during the first months of school, this lead to a high commitment to the school and its norms, and to a high degree of competition between the boys. The boys were enthusiastic and cooperative, with a great desire to participate. 

By the second year, this kind of enthusiasm as confined to a small number of boys in each class - five or six pupils were allowed to do all the work, while the others 'played dead'. Even a good teacher would not succeed in persuading all the boys to participate - there were always a few boys who would refuse, or who would use the occasion to sabotage the lesson. Teachers agreed that the first year’s classes were much the most rewarding to teach. Remembering that almost all of the boys in the school had been high-flyers in their junior schools, how did it come about that within a year, the majority had become either neutral vis-à-vis school values, or actively hostile

Lacey reports on a lesson given to one of the first form groups by the English master, who was also the music master. He organized the class seating according to the singing ability of the boys - the members of the school choir were in the front row, the members of the first-form choir were in the next two rows, and those who were either unable or unwilling to sing were in the last row. Lacey recorded the teacher-pupil interaction over a period of three lessons :


Record of teacher-pupil interaction : average for three lessons
Type of interaction
Row number
Answers to questions (per boy)
Rebukes per boy
Questions from boys (totals)

The teacher had created a physical representation of his judgement of the boys' value; commitment to the school choir became a sign of commitment to school success, and the pupils were both treated differently and behaved differently according to their relationship to the choir. 

As the boys come to understand their position in the class, through the first year, those who find themselves failing go through a period of emotional stress. Lacey observed the following symptoms : 

- bursting into tears when reprimanded by the teacher 

- refusing to go to school or to certain lessons - hysterical crying and screaming 

- sleeplessness 

- bedwetting 

- consistent failure to do homework 

- feelings of nausea before certain lessons

In the second year, the boys were streamed - that is to say they were split into classes according to perceived ability. During the second year, the individual reactions to failure tend to give way to a group phenomenon. There are, then, two processes at work, according to Lacey - on the one hand, the teachers differentiate. As a reaction to this process, the pupils themselves polarise - they divide themselves among those who accept the normative culture of the school, and those who reject it. 

The latter form an anti-group culture, one of the functions of which is to protect the members from the negative judgements of their teachers. The hard-core members of the anti-group culture gains prestige amongst his fellows by turning the values of the school upside down - and this may indeed, in certain milieu, lead on to delinquency. The values of the anti-group not only protect the school failure against the damaging image of himself that the teachers hold, but in fact make it even more difficult for him to begin to earn higher marks - the anti-group enters upon a vicious cycle, which will end in their quitting the school at the earliest possible opportunity, with no qualifications. 

The hardships of the streaming system are by no means confined to the relative failures who find themselves in the C forms. Amongst boys placed in the E (Express) form at the end of the first year, many found that the competition was stressful. Boys who had been among the top group in their first-year form now found themselves among the bottom group. Lacey reports that of the eleven boys who considered that they had had an unsuccessful year in 2E, three went through considerable emotional disturbance - crying in lessons, crying before lessons and refusing to come to school. 

We see here that the pupil is not simply a blank page upon which the institution writes a given script - she reacts to the behaviour of the teachers and the institution, calling upon her own cultural resources - thus, as Lacey points out, the anti-group culture in a grammar school may focus around folk music, or non-school forms of knowledge - one of the boys he studied reacted to his negative image within the school by cultivating a knowledge of the stock exchange. The anti-group culture in a working class secondary modern might crystallize around football, or minor delinquency, or, as in Willis's study of the lads ('Learning to Labour'), around out-of-school activities such as weekend work, or even a day-time job. 

Given that streaming or setting both appear to have costs that are particularly heavy for the least academic pupils - that is, in a general sense, those pupils who come from working-class or agricultural backgrounds - should we continue to divide students into different classes according to their ability? It appears that the net effect in terms of what the students learn is either null or negative in the early days of school - the mixed ability class favourizes progress for all pupils. Later, however, as the differences between the pupils become greater, the effect of the mixed ability class is negative particularly for the better students. The gap between the good students and the poor students grows. This appears to occur because of the differential treatment of the groups by teachers - which brings us on to the important point about teachers' attitudes and behaviour.

2. Teachers attitudes and behaviour

Nor is it simply true to say that the structure of the school itself necessarily produces the anti-group. The teachers themselves may, by their attitudes and behaviour, reinforce or ameliorate the production of the anti-group. Ball, in his study of differentiation in a Secondary Modern school, noted that the teachers themselves construct a priori stereotypes concerning the character type and capacities of children in the different streams. Thus they saw the band 1 child - 

'Has academic potential ... will do O-levels ... and a good number will stay on to the sixth form ... likes doping projects ... knows what the teacher wants is bright, alert and enthusiastic ... can concentrate ... produces neat work ... is interested wants to get on ... is grammar school material ... you can have discussions with ... friendly ... rewarding ... has common sense.'

The band 2 child 

'is not interested in school work ... difficult to control ... rowdy and lazy ... has little self control ... is immature ... loses and forgets books with monotonous regularity ... cannot take part in discussions ... is moody ... of low standard ... technical inability ... lacks concentration ... is poorly behaved ... not up to much academically.'

while the band 3 child 

'is unfortunate ... is low ability ... maladjusted ... anti-school ... lacks a mature view of education ... mentally retarded ... emotionally unstable and ... a waste of time.'

It was noticeable, once again, that the children who had arrived in an enthusiastic state of mind in the first year to find that they had been allocated to band 2, very quickly began to behave in such a way as to reinforce the teachers' stereotypes. Moreover, the teachers had accordingly low expectations of these pupils - as one of the teachers put it 'Band 2 lessons are essentially dull for both teachers and pupils'.

As Ball says, 'For these children, their secondary school careers had begun with a decision which meant that they were to strive for rewards in a race from which they had already been disqualified. But despite this they were to try their hardest to run as fast as the winners, and expect to be punished if they did not keep to the rules.' One of the teachers described the process thus - 

'in the first year they started off fresh and the same, but by the end of the first year they began to realize that being in band 2 or 3 is not quite the same. And in the second year they click and in the third they switch off; it's tragic.'

In many such classes, both teachers and pupils collude to 'get through the day' in such a way that the pupils do not feel that they have been forced to work, and the teachers can maintain the impression that some work has been done. Peter Woods suggests that teachers use a certain number of strategies in order to survive in non-exam classes 

Negotiation - if you will behave during this lesson, then we will see a film next time

Fraternization - some teachers - particularly in remedial classes - themselves adopt an anti-school attitude - at least to some extent. Younger teachers wear stylish clothes; some crack dirty jokes, or express impatience with what they regard as silly rules. Others will talk about popular television programmes, or discuss the performance of the local football club with the anti-school group. West reports that young male teachers often flirt with the girls, thus ensuring that they remain reasonably docile. 

Absence or removal - the truly incompetent teacher may find him or herself removed from the worst classes. Similarly, those who are considered the better teachers are rewarded with the better classes. The bad classes are reserved for newcomers, people who are known to be looking for jobs elsewhere, or those who, although capable of survival in bad classes, have got themselves in bad odour with the administration. The teacher can also, like the pupils, be physically present while remaining absent in spirit.

Ritual or routine - Many take a ritualistic attitude to their work - the science teacher who doggedly goes through with his experiment while the pupils chat amongst themselves, play cards or sleep. At a less outrageous level, teachers may use rigid drill like teaching techniques, which leave no room for surprise, and maintain constant control through directed activities.

Most of these strategies are founded upon some form of collusion between the pupils and the teacher to substitute non-work for work, and to ensure that lessons are as uneventful as possible - for in events the risk is always possible that control will be lost. However, in the long-run, they satisfy neither the teacher nor the pupil.

The self-fulfilling prophecy

We have noticed that one of the characteristics of a streamed system is that the teachers have low expectations of the pupils who have been assigned to the less academic forms. This means that the behaviour of the students is interpreted differ
Teacher : No, but if I were asked by Cs I would try to sidestep it because it would be the same question as 'Why do anything? Why work?'

Observer : What if you were asked by an A group? 

Teacher : Then I'd probably try to answer.

The teacher assumes that the children in the non-academic forms do not want to work, and interpret their behaviour accordingly. Keddie found that teachers spent less time preparing their lessons when they were for C stream pupils, and often did not bother to check out their facts, simply using the material provided. The same subject areas would be covered more superficially, or would be adapted to what the teachers saw as the pupils' capacities and interests - thus in economics, the A stream children would look at how the different forms of taxation - direct and indirect, for example - worked, while the C streamers would be shown how to fill in a tax form. 

ently. Nell Keddie asked one of the teachers in the school she was studying whether any pupil in his class had asked the question 'Why should we do social science?' 

The low expectations that teachers have of their pupils are not without its effects. Rosenthal and Jacobson were able to demonstrate these effects in their experiment in a school in New Mexico: they told teachers that they were psychologists, and that they were going to give pupils aptitude tests which would enable them to pick out those who would make progress over the next year. In fact, they simply selected a number of pupils in each year at random, and then informed the teachers that these were the ones that would succeed. Sure enough, by the end of the year, these particular pupils had improved more than their comrades. 

This experiment has been duplicated several times, with different results - it is not clear that the labelling process works in the same way everywhere - variables such as family background, the relationship between teachers and students, the structure of the establishment, may all play a role; nevertheless, it has become one of the best established axioms of the sociology of education that pupils have a greater chance of succeeding when their teachers have high expectations.

Teaching styles and pupil reactions

The evidence on pedagogical approaches is less clear. A study carried out by Isambart-Jamati and Grospiron, (1984), on the differences in pedagogical approach within the population of teachers of French in 1e in French lycées suggests that there is no one best way of teaching. They identified 4 types of teacher 
- the 'modernist' type - basic values of neutrality and rationality - gave their students communicative tools; the teacher is an expert in methods

- the 'libertarian' type - sees questions of orientation and exam success as unimportant - culture is above all a source of pleasure, and the teacher awakens the pupils' creativity and expressive capacities 

- the 'classical' type - prefers a select group of students, in whom he sees the future élite, through the cultivation of aesthetic refinement and literary sensitivity - the teacher initiates his students into the classics 

- the 'critical' type - priority given to democratisation of literary studies, within a society which is seen as unjust - the teacher offers his pupils the keys with which they will be able to understand and criticize the society that they live in.

The effects of the teachers were measured by comparing the marks earned in class, and the marks gained in the baccalaureate. The success of each type of teacher appears to depend on the social background of the different students. The libertarian teacher is very good for pupils from well-off families. The working-class pupil succeeds best with the 'critical' teacher, and has some success with the 'classical' type - but does not succeed at all with the other two kinds. There is a nice irony here in that the teachers of the libertarian kind hold 'leftist' opinions, in general, and yet their teaching favourizes the children of the upper classes.


We can see that not all the differences between pupils can be explained in terms simply of what they bring with them when they enter the school. The school itself has an effect upon the differential progress of its pupils. Schools differentiate between the different pupils - and this differentiation is not in itself entirely objective - and both the pupils and the teachers react to this differentiation as a symbolic reality, which reifies the distinctions - this is what sociologists mean when they talk about the 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. 

As we shall see next week, there is nothing fixed about this. Teachers and school administrators can palliate the effects of differentiation. 

They can refrain from differentiating too quickly.

They can ensure that the boundaries between the different ability levels are flexible, and that it is possible for pupils to move from one level to another.

They can maintain high expectations of pupils who are not in the higher-level classes.

They can adapt their pedagogical approach to the different kinds of pupils that they have in front of them, without dropping the demand for excellence which is fundamental both to pupil progress, and to the teacher's ability to continue drawing satisfaction from her job.

Schools do make a difference. Teachers do make a difference. It is not easy, but it is possible, and in order to make it possible, the teacher must be aware of her own attitudes and pedagogical beliefs, and of the effects that those attitudes and beliefs may have upon her teaching and upon her pupils. It is not sufficient for the teacher to know her subject, any more than it is sufficient for her to have a conscious pedagogical approach. She needs also to be able to understand how school functions in relation to the rest of society, and how it works internally. Next week, we shall try to see if there are criteria that enable us to recognize the good school, and whether there are criteria that enable us to recognize the good teacher. 

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Timothy Mason

IUFM de Versailles

Sections :


School processes

Streams, tracks and sets

Hightown Grammar

Teachers' attitudes and behaviour

Survival strategies

The Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Teaching styles and pupils' reactions


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